Chris Bohjalian, author of the best-selling “Midwives,” is a wonderful writer who never repeats himself. Yet while the settings of his novels range from the present to the past, the thread that ties them together is his fascination with moral paradoxes. ‘The Light in the Ruins,” his latest novel, once again asks readers “what would you do” under circumstances when everything is stacked against you.
The story opens in 1955, in Florence, Italy, where a woman is the victim of a gruesome murder. The unknown killer writes:
And why did I slice open her nightgown? I didn’t violate her. It was so I could cut out her heart. A woman with the lilting name of Francesca Rosati, who had once been a Tuscan marchese’s daughter-in-law, was my first.
But, as you will see, not my last.
The killer is on a mission to murder – and eviscerate – the members of the Rosati family who survived World War II: Francesca’s mother-in-law Beatrice, her sister-in-law Cristina, her brother-in-law Vittore and his wife and children.
In chapters that switch back and forth between 1955 and the war years of 1943 and 1944, Bohjalian weaves a tale that is more than a mystery, more than a psychological thriller – though it is those things. It is a meditation on the complexities of wartime alliances and collaborations.
Italy’s war years were complicated. Mussolini’s Blackshirts were Hitler’s allies – until Italy was liberated by Allied troops. The Italians were then the targets of the increasingly weakened Germans.
The noble Rosati family lives in the Tuscan hills in an age-old villa, the grounds of which house long-buried Etruscan tombs. These tombs attract the attention of German officers, who, under the guise of preservation, are essentially looting Italy’s artistic heritage.
They think the Etruscan art will provide clues to “German ancestral heritage.” Eighteen-year-old Cristina is attracted to a young German lieutenant, with whom she scandalously falls in love.
Vittore Rosati, an Italian officer and archaeologist, works in Florence with the so-called German art experts. It is in large part because of his assignment – and an unwillingness to put him in danger from the Germans – that the Rosati’s open their estate to the Germans. When the tides of war shift, The Germans imprison them in their own home. Despite their treatment, they are, as a family, nonetheless viewed as collaborators. Yet on one occasion they straddled the line – hiding a group of partisans during a critical onslaught.
Serafina Bettini, a Florentine police detective assigned to investigate the murder of Francesca Rosati, is one of them. A partisan during the war, she nearly died of burns. The assignment unlocks memories of her wartime traumas – and of her own incidental relationship with the Rosati family.
Bertrand Russell said it best, “War does not determine who is right – only who is left.” And it is those who are left in 1955 who set the plot of this suspenseful and thoughtful novel of love, revenge and the aftermath of wartime chaos brilliantly into play.
"The Light in the Ruins" is available on amazon.com and at your favorite New York bookstores.